Category Archives: Life

From Anticommunist to Navy SEAL: “I Owe Everything to America”

“I owe everything to America.”

That’s Thomas ‘Drago’ Dzieran, who left Communist Poland in the 1980’s for freedom in America and became a Navy SEAL. His path to the teams is singular.

Drago began to oppose Communism at an early age. He refused to learn Russian in school and was promptly hauled to the principal’s office. The principal explained to him that if he refused again, he could be taken from his family and sent to a foster home.

This did not stop Drago from questioning the Communist system. He listened secretly listened to the BBC on the radio, a highly illegal act. There he learned that the Communist government was killing people in Poland. He covered himself in blankets to dampen the sound as he listened, but his mother scolded him to use even more blankets and pillows lest a neighbor hear. If anyone heard, she could go to prison.

But Drago didn’t need a radio broadcast to tell him things in Poland weren’t right:

“I was always cold in Poland because we didn’t have good clothes.”

Privation was the norm, and he often went to school hungry. He took to assaulting the children of high party members, who were well fed. If you want to eat tomorrow, bring two sandwiches, he told them.

As a young man, Drago found himself in a Polish prison for printing anti-Communist leaflets. When released, he emigrated to the United States, and found himself resettled in Memphis, Tennessee by a refugee program.

The luxury of America amazed him. He had never seen air conditioning before, and found himself particularly mesmerized by American grocery stores. The cereal aisle had so many choices, and the packages were so attractive, he decided to try one. And another, and another. Soon, his cart was full of 50 boxes of cereal! But he couldn’t stop his curiosity:

“I didn’t even know what a cereal was.”

After a stint as an auto mechanic, Drago was looking for a way to serve his adopted home. He settled on being a Navy SEAL, but at 32, he was at least 4-5 years beyond the typical age limit. No matter. He powered through the qualification tests and insisted on being allowed into BUD/S. Drago later distinguished himself as a SEAL during the Iraq war.

Drago’s commitment to freedom continues today, as the founder of a censorship-free social network called Connectzing.

What really struck me in this interview was Drago’s perseverance, along with the stark differences between the United States and where he comes from. On living conditions in Poland under Communism:

“I would trade my life in Poland for prison here.”

After all, they get food and medical attention! That’s better than he got much of his life.

Drago says he owes everything to America, and that’s equally true for those of us who are native born. Let’s seize the opportunity, remembering these words:

“This is America. You can be whatever you’re able to be.”

For more on leadership and service, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Navy SEAL Graduation” by uscgpress is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jocko on Leadership: “Ownership Is the Most Valuable Compensation”

What motivates subordinates? A fat paycheck, stock options, maybe a free trip to Hawaii?

Perhaps. But on Monday’s Debrief podcast, Navy SEAL Commander and author Jocko Willink named another, more powerful inducement:

“Ownership is the most powerful compensation you can give a human being.”

People want control over their lives, including at work. So, rather than have subordinates execute your plan, Jocko favors giving them a goal and letting them figure out how they’ll get there on their own.

When a person gets a chance to come up with a plan themselves, they’ll find increasingly efficient ways to do it. After all, most of us like to think we’re smarter than the boss and should really be running things. This is our chance to prove it, and we’re unlikely to blow that chance.

What’s more, whether in the military or civilian world, subordinates are a lot more familiar with the nitty gritty of a certain job than the boss is. Leaving the details of a plan to them, with the boss just setting overall goals and then approving the plan to reach them, gives them more latitude to bring that experience to bear.

Finally, running things is fun! When it’s your little idea, you’re a lot more invested in it. So give your subordinates a chance to come up with plans themselves, rather than just waiting for instructions. You may be surprised how well they do.

For more on business and leadership, check out these posts:

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In GameStop, An Unlikely Community

I spent some time browsing the GME sub* on Reddit yesterday, curious what some of the stock’s most fervent supporters are saying. What I found surprised me.

The most striking discussions were intensely personal. One poster described saving up his GameStop winnings for sex reassignment surgery, a lifelong dream (usernames redacted):

Other posters, who call themselves “apes” in a reference to the movie Planet of the Apes, were extraordinarily supportive. Some even expressed a determination to hold the stock to help the original poster, even though one person selling or holding won’t have a material impact on the price. There were a few salty words for hedge funder Ken Griffin though:

It struck me that, in a time when people are forced to be apart, humans have managed to create community in the most unlikely of places. It says something about the human spirit than even in a disembodied online world, where the topic is an intangible financial instrument, brotherhood (and sisterhood) flourishes. I find it rather beautiful.

That said, I encourage the posters to simply support each other as people, rather than tying that to a stock. Take it from a professional investor: a stock doesn’t know you own it and doesn’t care about you. It’s a legal construct that gives you ownership rights in a company. And truth be told, it’s a shaky business. I’d hate to see such nice people get hurt.

For more on GameStop and the Reddit trade, check out these posts:

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*A sub, or subreddit, is a thematic category on the discussion website Reddit

Photo: “Gorilla ‘Kibo'” by to.wi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Top 5 Things That Changed When I Started Working for Myself

For fourteen years, four months and eleven days, I worked in software. My job was like a lot of jobs: conducted in a cubicle or sometimes remotely, during regular business hours, and almost every week of the year.

In July of 2019, I left that job to make my investment business full time. I still remember the feeling when I walked out of the office for the last time into a hot, sunny summer’s day…”Wow, this is it, I’m really gone”.

Looking back on the past 21 months, I decided to write down a few of the biggest changes in my life since leaving the world of corporate employment:

1) Your time is your own. When I wake up in the morning, I eat breakfast and do a little journaling. I can plan out a day focusing on whatever I want. The ability to design your own day is a huge difference from working at a company, where you’re crossing off items on someone else’s to-do list.

2) You find yourself suddenly immersed in new areas on a regular basis. In the last couple of months, I’ve done deep dives into COVID, vaccines, meme stocks, and startups. Some for business purposes, some just because I’m interested. When your time is your own, you find yourself delving into new topics a lot more frequently.

3) It’s harder to decide what success means. At a job success means not getting fired, getting a raise every year, and maybe a promotion. How do you define success in your own business? That’s a lot more subjective, and I tend to move the goalposts further whenever I reach a goal. This can put you on something of a treadmill. It’s important to get off sometimes and smell the roses.

4) You have more energy. Even though I almost never use an alarm clock anymore, I wake up earlier and am more energetic in general. Being able to do what I want with my time gives me energy. Doing what someone else wanted all day tended to drain it.

If you can make money through something other than selling your time, like investing or writing or selling a software product, you can remove that ceiling on your income.

5) The sky is the limit. My investments this past year made far more than I ever made working, and new investments I’m planning in early stage startups could blow away all previous earnings if things go right. (Or go to zero if they go wrong!)

If you work for a company, your raises usually come yearly and they’re only so much. There’s a limit to how much an employer will pay for an hour of your labor in most fields. What’s more, you only have at most 24 hours a day to sell! But if you can make money through something other than selling your time, like investing or writing or selling a software product, you can remove that ceiling on your income.

If you can generate enough income to fund even a modest living, and you aspire to work for yourself, I encourage you to do it!

If you can generate enough income to fund even a modest living, and you aspire to work for yourself, I encourage you to do it! If you can’t, build up a side business over time and eventually you’ll be ready!

For more on improving your life, check out these posts:

Photo: “The Workaholic NSA” by herval is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Best Motivational Speech of 2021

Investor Jason Calacanis was in rare form on the All-in Podcast on Friday:

All of the answers are out there if you want to start a company. All the skills are freely available to you. You can learn anything online. I think the message I really want people to understand is you may believe that the world is filled with inequality and racism and bad actors. And you would be right.

But what’s also right is that every skill can be learned, capital is available now more than ever, and there is a clear path for you if you just stop watching television and learn to be a UX designer, a sales executive, a marketing or growth executive or a developer. You can change the world and change your lot in life and be really fucking rich.

Don’t buy into this victim mentality. It’s complete, utter nonsense that crazy lefties are saying ‘Everybody’s stupid and nobody can learn.’ And I got a bag of red pills here, and I have been pounding them. The world is a giant opportunity for all of you. Go get it! Go get it!

I find this mindset very inspirational, and accurate! Online courses are widely available and free or cheap, making knowledge easier to access than ever. Capital is flowing. The virus is receding. Things are not perfect and never will be, but what a great time to be alive!

For more on investing and the business of life, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Jason Calacanis” by Peter Kaminski is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I Got The Moderna Vaccine! Here’s What It’s Like.

At 1:48pm today New Jersey time, I got my vaccine!

I’ve been waiting for this moment for many months, and I’m so grateful to have a chance to get it. It was the Moderna vaccine and I got it through the Hudson County vaccination site. So far, I feel 100%!

Having lived through the dark period of spring 2020 in the New York City area, when sirens were almost constant and my neighbors were dying in huge numbers, reaching this moment is cathartic. It prompted a lot of feelings for me: relief, gratitude, and hope!

So, what’s it like? This is a drive through site, and I don’t own a car, so I took an Uber. The driver very patiently waited with me in the lengthy line to get the jab. Many cars slowly snaked ahead in the cold snow.

Once we finally made it to the front, I showed a QR code on my phone that the county had e-mailed me. Shortly therafter, the nurse came up and asked if I had been feeling sick today. Then, she gave me the shot!

I barely felt a thing, which was surprising. Since then, I’ve had no side effects that I can discern. I hope it stays that way!

Just after the shot, we took the picture above. It’s actually staged…she had already given me the jab before we ever thought to document the moment for posterity! So she posed with the needle near my arm, and I took a snap to record this wonderful moment in my life that I’ve waited so long for.

“This is a historic moment,” she said. I agreed.

If you’re still trying to get an appointment, don’t give up! I’ve been checking every area provider’s website repeatedly for months. And I almost wasn’t going to check again today, but I did, and found an appointment for just 90 minutes away! Perhaps someone cancelled last minute. The best strategy seems to be to check over and over.

Now, I can begin to plan for a life after COVID. A week after the 2nd dose, which will be around the end of March, it should have achieved its full 94% efficacy. I will finally be able to get on a plane and visit my mom for the first time since December 2019! And I’m looking forward to getting some great protection even sooner: just 2 weeks after the first dose, the vaccine is 80% effective.

I really encourage everyone to get this vaccine, although I know each person has to make their own decision. COVID may be something to fear, but this really isn’t! If I didn’t keel over after, you won’t either! 🙂

When The Cat Who Supported Her Through Cancer Got Sick, Jessica Knew What She Had to Do

Jessica had battled a brain tumor for a decade and was finally feeling better. Her little cat Olive had stood by her throughout her treatment, and now they were relaxing together at their house in Harlem.

One weekend, Jessica couldn’t find Olive anywhere. She went down to the basement and heard faint meowing from the corner. Olive was very sick.

Jessica grabbed Olive and rushed for a taxi. Together, they headed to the Animal Medical Center (AMC) on New York City’s Upper East Side.

Dr. Kate Crecraft of AMC found that Olive had an extremely rare condition: a piece of grass had lodged itself in the sack around her heart (the pericardium). This was causing enormous fluid buildup and a life threatening infection.

Surgeons removed the blade of grass and treated the infection. After some TLC at home from her mom Jessica, Olive is feeling as good as ever!

Jessica finally had the chance to repay the friend who stood by her through her own illness. Now they’re together, healthy, and happy.

I found out about this story in a wonderful letter I received from AMC today. I know firsthand the good work they do; they saved my pet gerbil’s life multiple times. I wouldn’t want to take a pet anywhere else.

AMC is a marvel. There are departments of hematology, radiology, neurosurgery, everything the best human hospitals would have! But it all costs money, and as a nonprofit, AMC needs support from people like us.

If you want to be a part of incredible stories like this, please donate here.

How we treat these little animals says everything about us. Let’s enable more Olives to get well! When we heal them, we also heal the humans who love them.

What If Homelessness Is Caused by Brain Injuries?

A couple of months ago, a man approached me on the street near my home. He asked for a bit of money, and although I usually never do, for some reason I gave it to him. I later saw him on a regular basis near the neighborhood grocery. I found out his name was John* and he used to work in construction. Several times a week, I’d run into him and stop and chat for a few minutes.

One day, I noticed he had large purple bruises on his forehead. He told me he had tripped over his shoelaces and gone down hard. Especially if someone is exhausted and cold, it’s easy to see how this could happen. He had been to the hospital, but they dismissed him quickly, perhaps because he was homeless.

He had lived in our town for 48 of his 53 years, and only become homeless recently after losing his job, like so many others. It troubled me to think that after a lifetime of contribution, our town had cast him aside so readily.

I was reminded of John yesterday when I heard that over half of homeless people may have brain injuries. Skeptical, I decided to do some digging. I found a metanalysis in The Lancet that confirmed this astounding figure:

The lifetime prevalence of any severity of TBI [traumatic brain injury] in homeless and marginally housed individuals (18 studies, n=9702 individuals) was 53.1%

This is much greater than the general population:

The lifetime prevalence of TBI in homeless and marginally housed individuals is between 2.5-times and 4.0-times higher than estimates in the general population. Moreover, the lifetime prevalence of mo­derate or severe TBI in this population is nearly ten-times higher than estimates in the general population.

It’s difficult to say whether the brain injuries are a cause or effect of homelessness. But, homeless people tended to have their first TBI at a young age. To me, this argues that brain injuries are a cause of homelessness:

Age at first TBI ranged from 15 years to 19.9 years, and we calculated a weighted mean age of first TBI of 15.8 years.

Perhaps the relationship works both ways:

TBI could increase the risk for homelessness, and homelessness could increase the risk for incident TBI.

It’s common for us to blame the homeless for their condition. After all, many are addicted to alcohol and drugs, aren’t they? But that too may be related to head trauma:

several characteristics of homeless and marginally housed populations (eg, residential instability or substance use) were associated with sustaining TBI

Another study from Canada found similar figures, and noted that the first TBI usually happened before they became homeless:

The lifetime prevalence among homeless participants was 53% for any traumatic brain injury and 12% for moderate or severe traumatic brain injury. For 70% of respondents, their first traumatic brain injury occurred before the onset of homelessness.

A British study found that homelessness was not a significant predictive factor for head injuries. However, it didn’t address the question of whether the homeless had a TBI before becoming homeless.

Imagine two people, one with an stable and well-off family and one with a chaotic and impoverished family (or no family at all). They both hit their heads. One gets support and good medical care, but the other may wind up homeless.

I sometimes wonder if that’s what happened to John. Did he get hurt, wind up homeless, and then find himself in a position to get hurt again?

I haven’t seen him lately, despite looking for him over and over. I hope he found a nice place to stay this winter, and I hope to see him again.

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*Not his real name

Photo: “Thomas (Tomaso) is Homeless” by Franco Folini is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What Captain Sir Tom Meant to Me

My wife was the first person to tell me about Captain Tom, a man in the UK nearing his 100th birthday who was walking across his small garden day after day to raise money for the NHS. At that time, things in the New York area, where we live, were at their worst.

I remember the disturbing sights of that time. What was odd about them was I’d just catch a glimpse of what was happening. I would wonder if what I saw was what I thought it was. I seemed to see more hearses than I used to, but then who could be sure? I saw a large trailer outside a medical facility in Greenwich Village…was that one of the trailers that held bodies?

Other things were less equivocal. I saw a white panel truck pull up in front of a funeral home in Lower Manhattan. They had evidently run out of hearses. And an ambulance seemed to pass our building almost every minute.

I asked my wife if she had ever heard so many sirens. Was I just imagining things? She agreed she’d never heard so many at once. This made me realize I wasn’t imagining. I don’t know if that made it better or worse.

At this time, I felt helpless to stop the catastrophe surrounding me, as I’m sure many did. But Captain Tom’s example from afar cheered me. Of all people, who would be in a worse position to help than someone who is 99 years old and frail? But he determinedly crossed his garden back and forth, unconcerned with whatever limitations he might face. He just kept moving. I think he gave a lot of us the courage to keep moving to.

And bit by bit, his seemingly small act made a huge impact. He raised 33 million pounds ($45 million) for the NHS, perhaps saving many lives.

At 99 years old, one would think he had already given all he had to give. He had served his country in World War Two and raised a wonderful family. Who would’ve thought that his greatest achievement was still ahead of him?

When he started his walk, Captain Sir Tom was still recovering from serious injuries from a fall that included a punctured lung! But he saw what he could do, not what he couldn’t, and set about doing it for the good of others. And if someone could accomplish so much at age 99, imagine what we could do as well!

Captain Sir Tom Moore showed me what one human being can do, even in the face of the worst things. He showed me that people cannot be stopped; that the human spirit can triumph over anything, if we try.

It’s a shame to lose him, but he was here when we needed him most.

Captain Sir Tom, we’ll miss you!

The Mindset That Could Sink Wallstreetbets (And Others)

As someone who makes a living from investing, I have watched the Gamestop/Wallstreetbets events with interest. Today, I decided to venture into the belly of the beast and try to find out what these traders are all about.

I noticed two common patterns:

1) Us-vs-them thinking. The individual trader versus the evil hedge fund industry.

2) Determination to hold a position out of machismo

Take a look at some examples below (usernames redacted). These are all from today alone:

The backdrop to these conversations is the cratering of their most widely held stock, Gamestop:

The initial buying of Gamestop and other heavily shorted stocks had some logic: Wallstreetbets wanted to engineer a short squeeze. A rapidly escalating price would force hedge funds that had shorted the stock to buy it to close out their positions. Otherwise, the hedge funds would face even worse losses. But, since all those hedge funds have to buy at once, the price can spiral higher and higher.

Despite the logic of that move, I find many people’s judgment clouded by us-vs-them thinking and machismo. Whether hedge funds are morally good or bad has no bearing on whether a position is worth holding. And one should never identify with an investment emotionally. If one’s identity and manhood (something tells me these posters are probably mostly men) are wrapped up in holding Gamestop stock, how can you make a rational decision based on the facts?

Will you choose to invest or not invest based on data, or will you just hold your position all the way down to 0 to show everyone how tough you are?

Perhaps a lack of machismo is one reason why female investors tend to have a better track record:

According to the Warwick University research, women’s outperformance can be attributed to the type of investment they tend to favour.

The study revealed that men are more likely to take a risk on more speculative, “lottery style” stocks where they believe [they] have the potential to make a lot of money very quickly. Men also tend to hold on to lossmaking investments in the hope that they will come good.

Financial Times

Instead, I suggest adopting a philosophy of non-attachment. This is a concept often attributed to Buddhism. It has parallels in many other religions, including Christianity. If we detach from our opinions and possessions (including stocks), we can view things more dispassionately. That investment isn’t you. You are you. The investment is just an investment. And it either makes sense or it doesn’t on its own merits. What’s more, whether you made millions or lost everything, it doesn’t change who you are.

I find meditation helps me in this process. It gives me a chance to get outside of the normal rushing freight train of thoughts and examine my opinions and beliefs from the outside. Or just simply take a break from them!

Time will tell whether the likes of Gamestop make good investments, and whether Wallstreetbets remains a phenomenon or fades. But detaching from our emotions and opinions and viewing them from the outside is a useful strategy we can employ forever.

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Photo: “Ship sinking in the Strait of Gibraltar” by ^ Johnny is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0